From Small Things…

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

A number of Port Vila schools have recently begun to take the Internet seriously. Assisted by veteran and novice IT volunteers, they’ve invested their meagre computing resources in an undertaking designed to help teachers create a richer and more open learning environment.

As with all things, it started small. Circumstance threw a few IT professionals together and led them to collaborate to improve their own children’s education. One thing led to another, and now we’re beginning to see the first fruits of integration of technology with teaching in Vanuatu.

The story begins five months ago when four parents, all of them seasoned IT professionals, began to chat about how to improve conditions at Central School, where their children were enrolled. Before very long they were at the core of a group of over 30 parents and teachers, all devoted to taking advantage of computers and the Internet in order to improve the quality of education.

This may sound familiar. It’s not the first time in Vanuatu that parents have moved mountains one pebble at a time to supplement their school’s limited resources. Nor is it the first time that teachers have been able to indulge their personal and professional enthusiasm for their vocation by working with the community at large.

But there are a few unique aspects to this story.

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Selling Democracy by the Byte

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent. Updated and edited slightly from the original print version.]

Thirty years after the Revolution, the June 12th Iranian presidential elections seem to have catalysed a transformational moment in the nation’s history. One Western commentator writes:

The widespread, sustained, peaceful and courageous demonstrations by Iranians this week has been an astonishing and inspiring sight. In a way this feels like the anti-9/11.

Analysts have suggested that the rapid rise in popularity of moderate candidate Mir-Hosain Mousavi caught the theocratic regime’s leaders flat-footed. Juan Cole, President of the Global Americana Institute and long-time commentator on Middle-East affairs, writes:

As the real numbers started coming into the Interior Ministry late on Friday, it became clear that Mousavi was winning. Mousavi’s spokesman abroad, filmmaker Mohsen Makhbalbaf, alleges that the ministry even contacted Mousavi’s camp and said it would begin preparing the population for this victory.

The ministry must have informed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has had a feud with Mousavi for over 30 years, who found this outcome unsupportable. And, apparently, he and other top leaders had been so confident of an Ahmadinejad win that they had made no contingency plans for what to do if he looked as though he would lose.

They therefore sent blanket instructions to the Electoral Commission to falsify the vote counts.

His narrative is, he admits, largely speculative.

The result, witnessed through countless independent blog posts, photos and videos, has been massive, occasionally violent protest in the streets of the capital Tehran and, according to reports, in Tabriz, Mashad, Shiraz and Rasht as well.

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Cargo Culture

The phrase ‘cargo cult’ is well known here in Vanuatu, and probably better understood than anywhere else in the world. Pop anthropologists, TV crews and trivia hounds love to belittle the ‘silly’ idea that performing the proper rituals will result in good things happening. They snicker at the uniformed, marching figures in Tanna, wondering what kind of person could believe such a simple tale.

The fact is, we are all, to some degree or other, members of a cargo culture.

Magical Thinking is the term applied to the kind of behaviour that assigns more importance to a sequence of events than to actual causation. We indulge in this kind of behaviour when we put on a ‘lucky’ shirt on important days, or avoid stepping on spiders for fear of bringing the rain. It’s in our daily horoscope and a significant number of expressions that we use everyday.

We use Magical Thinking when we touch wood, say ‘God bless’ to someone who sneezes, keep a rabbit’s foot on our key chain, or sing a certain song to ward off bad luck. We also use a certain degree of Magical Thinking when we smoke a cigarette, drink too much or practice unsafe sex. We assume that certain rituals can make good things happen or keep bad things at bay.

We also use a fair amount of magical thinking when we start our computers in the morning, when we make a phone call or send an email.

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